Oxenfree – Sorta Review
I’ve been trying to remember where I heard of Oxenfree. I know I knew of it before it came out, just can’t remember where I learned of it. Most probable: I heard it from Felix Kramer, who was doing marketing for it, and whom I follow on Twitter.
Regardless! We are here to talk about the game, not… whatever I was doing up there.
As usual I will do my best to avoid spoilers, though I will at the least have to talk about the set-up for the game. Other minor spoilers may occur.
I also have very few screenshots for this, so it might not be the most interesting stuff. I got a little too caught up in the atmosphere to remember to hit the screenshot button.
So what is Oxenfree? In a way it’s kinda like a 90s point-and-click adventure with horror. Like Monkey Island, but spooky/eerie. Except not actually point-and-click. You move with WASD for keyboard, and use the mouse for dialogue options and radio tuning, or you use a controller. Maybe this just confuses you more, but the whole style of it really reminds me of those old point-and-click adventures.
You might assume this means it has retro pixel-art, but it doesn’t. The art-style is very clear and modern-looking, if that’s the right term. Like you can see here:
It has good use of lighting and shading as it transitions further into the night, and I think it does a great job of establishing an appropriate atmosphere to suck you in. It really is very eerie and unsettling.
And once it has you, it starts messing with your perception of things. I won’t say it’s very subtle about it, but it is definitely creepy. I had several moments where I went “wtf?!” because something unexpected occurred. So yeah, I like that. Creepy, atmospheric horror games with little to no jump scares are exactly my kind of thing.
It is also fully voice-acted, and the voice-actors are pretty good. The voice-acting and the sound design help with maintaining the atmosphere, especially once the- no, I’m not going to spoil that, even though the first time occurs fairly early on.
Interestingly, taking pictures becomes a fairly important element to the game. You know the horror trope about how the camera sees more than the eye, right? I think they’re optional, similarly to in Firewatch, but I recommend going for every photo opportunity you can.
I’ve talked for several paragraphs now without actually talking about the set-up or the characters. Up in the photo we have, left-to-right, Alex: the playable character, Ren: her best friend, and Jonas: her new step-brother.
The three of them travel to Edwards Island for a summer party. Ren invited Alex, who brought Jonas in a bid to get to know him better, I think? They also meet up with two other girls: Nona and Clarissa. Clarissa used to date Alex’s brother before he died in an accident; and Nona is Clarissa’s friend, Alex’s classmate, and the girl Ren has a crush on. It all seems like very typical teenager stuff. Mostly.
Ren brought a radio that he hands to Alex, because there’s not proper reception on the island, but at certain places you can still hear things if you tune the radio right. This becomes a very important mechanic to the game, and some of the stuff you pick up… some of it just backstory stuff, like the tour guide descriptions for various landmarks and sights on the island, and some of it is… well, spooky. Oh, and I didn’t learn this until after I had played, but you can tune the radio by using the mouse-wheel. I used click-and-drag for the whole game.
Since things are a bit tense between Clarissa and Alex, Ren takes Alex and Jonas over to a cave that is rumoured to trigger weird stuff on the radio. And that’s basically the point where weird stuff starts happening.
The entire game is basically carried by the characters and how they deal with the situation they get put in. Shit goes down, they get separated, and they have to work out how to find each other while also figuring out what the hell is going on and why. I felt like all of them had solid personalities and motivations, even if you have to do certain easy-to-miss things to find out for some of them. Like I probably would have thought Nona was a bit flat if I hadn’t taken her along with me when I had the chance.
See, with only a few exceptions, you are always travelling with someone, and you have conversations along the way. You get to choose how you want Alex to respond of up to three choices ( I don’t remember ever seeing more, at least ), or you can also choose to not respond at all if you just prefer to let the other character go on, or leave them hanging, or if two or more of the other characters are having a conversation you don’t want to butt in on. You don’t have to say anything. I sometimes felt bad for how I made Alex just cut them off, which seems to be what happens most of the time if you pick a reply while someone else is still talking. But you also have a limited time to pick a response, so sometimes I would just panic. It’s not a perfect system, but I’d say that for the most part it felt like a fairly natural way of having a conversation.
Overall I think it’s a well-crafted game. It has some issues where I feel stuff wasn’t properly explained. And not in the “this is supposed to be a mystery” sense, but rather in a “we wanted to go from A to C, but we forgot to include B”. Like they meant to have an explanation/transition, but either failed or forgot. There were also some small parts of the narrative I didn’t feel fully made sense, but I think a story like this can get away with that to an extent.
Looking back on the game, I’m also not sure if the occasional platforming bits were necessary? Okay, there are some collectibles and such hidden about *cough*rocks*cough*, and you have to explore to find them, but it’s not the kind of game where I expected to be prompted to climb and jump. That kinda feels like one of those “well, we have to have some gameplay, not just story” concessions, but at least I never thought it got annoying.
So if you’d like a story-driven game with spooks, maybe Oxenfree is just the game for you? If you think it sounds at all interesting, I recommend giving it a shot.